Traditional Values in Digital Photography.
Although experimental digital photography dates back to 1975, the first commercially available digital cameras came on the market in 1990. At that time, there were virtually no software tools to edit images, so images were often uploaded to computers and the web exactly as they were taken.
The results were often ‘noisy’ and ‘grainy’ as well as soft focus and vignetted. This was due to the rush to market of the new technology and the need to cut costs on lenses and other materials. The first digital users became a test bed for later camera models.
Digital images were easy to spot because of their tell-tale noise, or the extra soft lenses that were used to combat the noise. Early digital cameras also included visible masks and filters to create never before seen effects.
At the same time, the Chinese entered the roll film market with the Holga camera. This was so poorly made that it had inconsistent blurring, fuzziness, light leaks and vignetting. It had a ‘Bad Art Cult’ following, and grew in popularity rapidly, as the sales of other film cameras dropped.
Many of the digital camera manufacturers aspired to the sales that Holga was enjoying and through in camera filter techniques or post processing software, attained similar effects. Many of these effects are available as plug-ins in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and other now mainstream editing software.
But it must be remembered that these techniques were originally designed to obscure the reality of poor images and poor camera production. These were unintentional failings of a fast growing industry and a set of band aids to cover them up – they were never designed to be anything other than a marketing tool to sell cameras that were so poor in quality, that without a few vignettes, or even balloons and candles added in, they were useless.
Unfortunately, a whole generation of picture enthusiasts were trained on these cameras as the previous generations had been trained on wet plates, sheet film, roll film and cassette film. The new picture enthusiasts were also the internet generation, so consequently, the internet was entirely flooded with these terrible quality images, which had set their own new standard.
Many film camera manufacturers filed for bankruptcy, while some joined the digital revolution. A few attempted to regain the quality of the 1960s 70s and 80s with their production cameras, but by the time they had succeeded in overcoming the manufacturing and economic obstacles, the art of the image had all but been lost.
Sophisticated software had filled the gap with image sharpening, contrast gradients and gamma adjustments – none of which compensated for the film era of pure filtration, steady temperatures, and chemically balanced dilution. Simply, the tonal range in digital photography was not as wide as that of film.
Further techniques such as bracketting exposures, blending images and eventually ‘High Dynamic Range’ (HDR) software became the rage, but it seemed doomed to be used as the new ‘Holga’ toy, not a compensation for what had been lost in the move to digital.
Because of my years or experience, I have often been asked to judge photography competitions, but I steadfastly refuse, as I realize that my bias is toward good images, not use of techniques. To me, a Black and White picture must always have two things. Black and White. If that requires a densitometer to prove it – good! That is what we used in the quality control of our darkrooms, when quality counted.
So – if you want me to look at your pics, judge your show, or even just enjoy your website, get rid of the Polaroid muddiness, the Instagram flatness and Holga-ness of your images and aspire to perfection – crisp, clear renditions of what you see.
Oh I get it, art doesn’t have rules. Well you try listening to a Symphony that goes on for a lifetime with every note off key!
I’ll take the special note for effect, or the cannon to get my attention, when surrounded by beautiful music. But the music of my internet is clanging with discordant images of supposed artists making up rules – or not having any concept of art.
Please, keep your lens cap on (KYLCO Awards) or study the Masters – Edward Weston, Ansell Adams, Edward Steichen, Alfred Steiglitz etc… they truly defined the concept of what was possible, practical and artistic in photography.